Content Warning: sexual violence and abusive behavior
When we think of cults, we think of them as being religious in nature and devoted to something sinister but cults are not always religious-based, sometimes cults form as activists groups trying to make the world a better place. This was partly the reason it took me years to accept the reality that I had somehow actually joined a cult! I am writing this as a concerned member of the animal liberation movement and as someone who was heavily involved in an animal rights cult from April 2014 to October 2017. I am still a bit afraid to write this because of the blow-back of my departure I’m enduring from it– including an ongoing legal battle with an animal rights cult member and associated legal fees. If you’d like to contribute to my legal fees then press here or here. Despite my fear of writing this, I strongly feel that I must do so to keep others from being manipulated and harmed by them. Looking back on my experiences, I can now recognize many core similarities between religious cults and animal rights cults.
1. A Leader That is Worshipped
The animal liberation group I was involved with has a leader that is worshipped. On one occasion during a conflict with him, someone came to his defense by calling him an “angel”. On another occasion, during a conference call intended to discuss our grievances about the group to try to fix them, the first hour or so consisted of everyone defending this same leader with praise and full obedience. This worshiping of the leader made it difficult for him to be held accountable for any of his wrongdoings, including against other activists inside the group. If you are in an animal rights group where the one in charge, either by title or just unofficially running the show, is above criticism and most members refuse to accept them as anything besides a messiah-type savior, then take this as a warning sign.
2. Penalized Dissent
If your group does not value dissent, then that is trouble! Throughout the years spent in this group, the leader would often say how he really did value dissent, constructive feedback, and disagreements. So, imagine my surprise when 40+ members of this group and I got punished by being removed immediately after creating a petition asking for changes based on our collective input–to make the group better. Groups that rely on groupthink (in which members are penalized, ostracized or kicked out when their views are deemed too different from the rest) are cults. If you are in an animal rights group that gives you trouble for honest attempts or legitimate questions about making changes and improvements, then get out of there.
3. People Live Together
Members of the animal rights group I was apart of were encouraged to relocate to the headquarters, moving from wherever they were in the world to San Francisco, California. Living with members could bring us greater unity, but in reality, all that happened was allow the leader to have more control over people. This is exactly what happened in the Jonestown Massacre where nearly 1,000 people moved to Guyana, South America, and later committed suicide–all under the instruction of their leader. If you find yourself in a situation where you are living, eating and sleeping under the supervision of the group leader, then things can go bad to worse very quickly. If you are in an animal rights group that wants you to prove your commitment by relocating your life to their central hub, then please reconsider before it is too late.
You may start to find that you are isolating yourself from all your friends and family. The more I got involved with this cult the more distant from my family I became. As a result, I missed holidays and birthdays. This animal rights group also subconsciously encouraged us to isolate ourselves even more by having us take a pledge to not eat with our friends and family when they were eating non-vegetarian food. This pledge was supposed to help make our friends and family take animal rights more seriously, but what it actually did was isolate us from them all the while bringing us closer to the cult members. Cults thrive on making the outside world look like the “other”, and by default life with members of your group, other like-minded people, become distorted as a utopia. If you are in an animal rights group that actually encourages you to disconnect from people important in your life, instead of trying to help strengthen those relationships through more meaningful ways, then this is a definitely a bad sign.
5. No Life Outside the Cult
All or most of your time was spent on working on things related to the cult. Over time I found myself having no life outside the cult. The dreams I had of traveling and finishing school all became secondary to the group’s objectives. Then the couple times that I did convince myself to do something new, separate from the group, I had to deal with the guilt of thinking I was being selfish for not working on the group’s objectives. This all reminded me of a religious cult, where the members would spend all their time doing things in relation to the cult’s objectives. This is a common trend in cults.
6. Rape and Sexual Assaults
It is unfortunate just how common sexual assault is among cults and also within animal rights as a whole. Not only that but then there is a whole pattern of cover-ups, dismissals and general mishandling of these situations so that perpetrators are left untouched while survivors and victims are blamed, not believed and left traumatized. This forced a lot of members, mostly always women, to leave or else relive their trauma by having to continue working with their abuser. Over the years the group I was a part of had many occurrences of rape and sexual assault, where one of these was handled publicly while the rest were not. The most horrendous case involved one victim being sued by her rapist! If you are in a group that dismisses, covers-up or mishandles sexual assaults then get out before it happens to you!
Building off of number 5, cults teach you to think of everything in terms of the cult goals. You get obsessed with convincing people to come out to one of your group’s events. Many members had multiple social media accounts simply to recruit people online. In the group I was apart of, one member used to go on dates with people in order to recruit for the cult. If this sounds familiar, then you probably have heard about it from Children of God’s tactic of flirty fishing. While from the inside this can look admirable because of each member’s apparent dedication to their beliefs, what this actually is is deceitful and wrong. You no longer see people as people, but rather as potential members of your cult.
Cults control just about every aspect of their member’s lives, including what they can and cannot say. The leaders want to run your life just like how they run the cult. I remember getting calls from members of the animal rights cult asking me not to say certain things online, and we were also asked to censor other member’s social media accounts. Since cults see every member as an ambassador of the group, this means they discourage individuality and free speech, anything that is not already approved by the leader(s). If this sounds like something you are going through, then leave before you get hurt!
New vegans are often lonely, looking for community and friends who also respect animals and this cult preyed on this fact. The group I was involved with targeted lonely vegans looking for friends and a sense of belonging, including some people who came from broken homes, with specific marketing that represented their group as a place of belonging. Once involved, you started to believe you were destined to change the world! Disruptions were used as a way to make new recruits feel empowered and capable of changing the world for animals. This made leaving the group extremely difficult because you began seeing that group as the entire Animal Rights Movement so the idea of leaving the group seemed as if you were turning your back on the animals. Cults know to recruit people who are looking for community and are idealistic about making the world a better place. Neither qualities are something to be ashamed of having or feeling, but it is dangerous when mixed with the other warning signs on this list. So, if you are in an animal rights group that seems to only target recruiting lonely people, or if they make you feel like leaving that group means you are abandoning the animals altogether, then get out fast. The animal rights movement is bigger than any one group, including yours or the one I was in.
10. Financial Exploitation
Cults manipulate their members into giving money for the group’s objectives. We were asked to give as much money to them as we could on a regular basis. The group I was in used open rescues in manipulative ways to boost their public image and acquire more donations. While donations were represented as supporting the animals, they were really being used so that the leader’s friends didn’t have to work and only a small percent of the money was actually going towards caring for the animals they rescued. They also loved getting attention and being hero-worshipped when in reality, they didn’t actually care about the individuals they rescued – and this was revealed after being caught in a lie about where donations were going and abandonment of animals at various farm sanctuaries. If you are involved with an animal rights group that is handling money and they are not 100% clear about where every dollar goes, then this is definitely another sign of a cult. This cult is not only deceiving its members but also those outside of it trying to help liberate animals!